Published in ‘Times Computing’ on March 7th 2001

Unsolicited e-mail, or e-mail you get from unknown and unsubscribed sources is a growing menace on the Internet. You get junk e-mail in different flavours — plain simple commercial advertising, chain-letters, mail-bombs aimed at clogging up e-mail servers, some stealthily spliced with viruses, worms and Trojan horses — all to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting.
No one can dispute the fact that the most widely used application on the Internet is the wonderful e-mail service simply for its unrivalled immediacy. Compose your e-mail and simply click the ‘send’ button. Your message races over the Net at lightning speed, and it’s in your recipient’s mailbox sometimes even before you can say “You’ve got e-mail”.
The e-mail service is a very powerful communication utility but, unfortunately, this productive tool can easily be misused in many ways making the Internet experience less productive and somewhat annoying. If you are an avid Internet user, spending a substantial part of your time on the Internet reading and deleting junk e-mails may not be new to you.
We all recognize that e-mail is a resource that we all pay for as a part of getting connected to the Internet and that reading and responding to our e-mail entails investment of our prestigious time and hence has a monetary value attached to it.
Almost everyone who uses e-mail extensively has been complaining about spamming as it not only blocks up bandwidth but also results in wastage of precious Internet time.
But all of us who complain about spamming should be aware that spamming is just one of the several types of e-mail abuses — like hoax mails, chain e-mails and denial of service — that are currently perpetrated in cyyberspace and one must take steps to protect oneself from being a victim.
A survey has shown that e-mail marketing has a higher success rate than the ubiquitous banner advertisements or any other form of Internet marketing.
Hence, the incidence of unscrupulous direct-marketing agencies that specialise in Internet marketing has shown a marked rise, fuelling a major increase in the problem of junk e-mail.
– Types of e-mail abuses
Spamming
The word ‘spam’ originates from a meat-based product (slated to have no nutritional value) and made famous by a Monty Python skit (www.detritus.org/spam/).
Spamming is nothing but invasive Internet advertising. It’s the mail you haven’t asked for and that’s simply pushed at you.
Examples of spam mails are typically get-rich-quick schemes, home loans, debt financing, lucky draws, etc.
Spoofing
The act of connecting to a mail transfer agent (e.g. SMTP) and falsifying the information that is required to be provided in order to cause mail to appear to have come from someone other than the agency it originated from.
Mail forwarding
Mail forwarding is a routine operation of an e-mail facility we are all aware of. The process of receiving and sending of e-mail that is directed to your mail server but is ultimately directed to another mailbox. We all have been guilty at some point in time of forwarding hoax messages like virus alerts, sympathy letters, donation needs and superstitious ‘good luck’ chain letters. E-mail hoaxes on the Internet have been known to cause victims serious property and reputation damages, and psychologically even endangered their lives.
Denial of service attacks
DSA are malicious attacks like filling up your mailbox with thousand mails in order to crash your system. This kind of flooding a single host with mails is called flaming. It may be an attempt to destroy a business on the Net or could be a personal vendetta against the victim.
How e-mail abuse hurts
Someone sending a junk mail to our e-mail accounts amounts to a waste of our time and money. As an individual message it may not have much significance but in totality all messages having download times in seconds add up to minutes. It usually takes 10 seconds to download, recognise and delete a spam message and if you get 60 spams a day that means 10 minutes of your precious Internet time, and for a dial-up Internet account your phone bill too gets needlessly bloated.
How do they find us?
Ever wondered how these e-mail abusers ever find our e-mail addresses? Well, there are several sources of e-mail address lists. Mailing lists can be automatically generated using web-spider software which are commonly referred to as ‘e-mail address harvesters’ that roam the web looking for e-mail addresses embedded in a web page and USEnet newsgroups. Many sites have content that can be viewed only after registering, which entails giving personal details, including your e-mail address. Disclosing such details puts one at a high risk of getting spammed.
Exception to junk mail
There are exceptions to bulk mail abuse, which are legitimate mailing lists. Lists that you have subscribed to receive messages pertaining to a particular subject. Contrary to junk mail these are perfect examples of productive e-mail. Spam and other junk e-mail currently costs businesses around the world millions of dollars a month in bandwidth, customer service and system administration. Fuelling the practice of sending junk mail is the fact that there is no legislation to protect privacy of personal data on the Internet. It is a grey area on which some ISPs and other direct marketing companies are capitalising. Unless netizens, with the initiative of government agencies and private regulatory authorities, do something concrete about it e-mail abuse seems to be here to stay.
Self-defence Tactics
Here are a few tips to help you avoid drowning in unsolicited junk mail and getting even with the baddies. You could simply set-up a filter in your e-mail client to screen out the spam. Programs such as Microsoft Outlook, Netscape Messenger or Eudora let you create rules for incoming mail. For example, you could automatically direct any incoming mail with text like ‘make money’, ‘great offer’ or ‘xxx’ in the body of the message into a folder called ‘spam’ or simple delete it altogether. With such a filter you could easily weed out most of the commercial and pornographic spam.Some e-mail clients let you download only the mail headers which can clue you in on the contents and help you decide whether you need to delete the messages or download them. You can also specify which e-mail addresses you want to block out from your mailbox. One of the better ways of keeping spam at bay is to enrol for a free e-mail facility and use those addresses in public domains rather than an ISP assigned address. Hence your ISP e-mail address will be protected from unsolicited mail. There is little you can do if you are hosting a web page which will most probably include an address which can easily be harvested by web-bots. You can, however, hit back if you know how harvester works. Harvester traverse links on WWW pages blindly collecting what look like an e-mail address that it manages to find and hence can be easily tricked by software like WPoison which can reside on a web server. The WPoison program is a l web-page link and leads the harvester software to a page with a number of randomly generated and bogus e-mail addresses with additional links to follow where more bogus e-mail addresses are laid out for the harvester to gobble, making the job of the spam masters that much more unsavoury.
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